Last month, 20-year-old Isabella Chow, a student senator at the University of California, Berkeley, became the center of a controversy when she chose to abstain from a pro-LGBTQ vote.
She was essentially told, “You have to fully support this bill and fully support the LGBTQ lifestyle, or you’re out.” But Isabella held to her convictions. At the next student senate meeting that followed the vote, she sat for three hours while student after student stepped up to the microphone to express hurt and rage over her actions. Commenters on social media compared Isabella to the KKK and called her “a terrible example of Christian hypocrisy.”
If you’d like to read more about what happened, I recommend reading the World Magazine article “Conviction and Consequences,” which quotes Isabella as saying:
“If I was elected to be a voice for such a time as this, the light doesn’t stop shining when the darkness gets darker, the voice doesn’t stop speaking when it’s being shut down. This is not a time to back down. It’s a time to continue shining the light of Christ in all love, all grace, all humility.”
I want to stand with Isabella, and her right as an individual and an American to hold to unpopular beliefs. But it goes deeper than that. I also affirm her responsibility to have done so. She acted courageously, yes, but instead of viewing this as something extraordinary, I could wish such courage were the norm, not the exception, among American Christians.
Of course, humility is as great a virtue as courage, and sometimes we believers can blast out our convictions in a prideful and demeaning way. But it appears to me that’s not what Isabella has done. In my book The Grace and Truth Paradox I emphasize the need to never choose between grace and truth but to seek to be like Jesus, full of both.
Sometimes we as Christians put far more emphasis on our right to say something than our responsibility to do so. We will stand before the Judgment seat of Christ and give an account for what we do (2 Corinthians 5:10). Jesus specifically emphasized our accountability for what we say: “I tell you that on the day of judgment people will have to account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). Scripture also makes clear that besides sins of commission in what we say there are also sins of omission. We are told to speak up and defend the innocent (Proverbs 31:8-9). We’re also told to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), which appears to be Isabella’s sincere desire.
Often those who say they feel unsafe when beliefs they disagree with are voiced by others, are in fact feeling uncomfortable or conflicted or angry, not actually unsafe. Feeling uncomfortable and angry and conflicted is not the same as being victimized, it’s just part of life.
There are places in the world that are truly unsafe, and it minimizes and demeans those people’s plight every time we Americans say we are “unsafe” because someone disagrees with us, the choices we make, or the way we live. Children living on the streets and victims of sex trafficking and abuse are unsafe. Well fed and clothed American university students are not, unless of course someone attempts to shoot, stab, or rape them.
The words “I disagree with you” are fine, and common in a society where free speech is guaranteed, valued and even treasured. On the other hand “You make me feel unsafe when you say that”—in response to anything but an actual threat of physical harm—is something else entirely. It now has been distorted to mean this:
“I am unwilling to dialogue with you and listen to your viewpoint, or even to tolerate you expressing it. I must cling to my own opinions, regardless of whether they are irrational and inconsistent. I refuse to submit them to scrutiny, and therefore you have no right to disagree with me. When you say and do things I disagree with, it makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Therefore, you have no right to do or say what you believe to be right. I, on the other hand, have every right to call you names and try to shut you up and organize efforts to keep you from holding to your convictions.”
Don’t get me wrong, I believe every American should be free to dislike Christians, disagree with the Bible, and believe the Christian faith is wrong or even evil. Fine, but doesn’t that also mean affording others the same right to believe what they do about atheism, abortion, sexual immorality, or whether it is morally right to act on nearly every sexual impulse a person ever has? For Christians, I think that while advocating the right to free speech is appropriate, we need to think more in terms of whether God tells us we’re responsible to speak up than whether or not our culture grants us the right to do so. The early Christians were told they didn’t have the right to share the gospel:
When they were threatened with jail, Peter and John said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). So even if the Constitution did not grant us the right to freedom of religion or free speech, we would still have the responsibility before God to speak out.
The fact is, while the gospel is good news, it is also insulting. Though the exact issues facing Christians in our culture today have changed, there is nothing new or postmodern about the gospel turning some people off. That’s always been true, just as it’s always been true that some people are longing to hear it and will deeply appreciate that you had enough courage to tell them about Jesus. If we merely seek our culture’s approval, we’ll either never get it or get it only at the expense of failing to represent Christ.
Even the most inclusive and loving Christians must insist that some things are right and others are wrong. In doing so, we ensure a degree of unpopularity. Peter said, “Don’t be surprised at the fiery ordeal you are suffering as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). As I share in my book Truth, remaining quiet about hard truths isn’t the way to reach the world for Jesus. Even when it stings us or them, we’re to humbly tell people what God has actually said.
But if your goal is to avoid suffering in this life, then following Christ will not help you. Jesus Himself said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.… If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:18, 20). If our eyes are on anyone but Jesus, we’re not going to have the stamina to put up with the criticism or outright hostility we will likely face in the days ahead. Paul said, “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
Jesus also said in Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed [happy] are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Finally, you might also like to check out this radio interview with Isabella, to hear her share firsthand what happened and about what God has been teaching her. She says this, and I think it’s right on:
“In today’s culture, it’s often easy to…strive for political correctness. It’s easy to follow what everyone else is doing… But at the end of the day, it’s a decision you have to make between following God and holding fast to His truth, and really wrestling with what you see in Scripture and with what He convicts you to be the truth, or following the world and compromising your principles.”